Casco Bay’s forgotten forts | Down East

[I attended the University of Southern Maine in the early 1980s and had the opportunity to take a ferry out to one of the 365 or so islands in Casco Bay. But I didn’t realize the significant military history associated with some of those islands. I enjoyed this story about some of the military forts that were built on those islands to ward off threat. — KM]

Karen Lannon and her brother Hal Cushing have perhaps the most unusual piece of waterfront property in Greater Portland: a twenty-four-acre island complete with an artillery-ready, three-bastion granite fort. The two-story fort is fully equipped with walls, parapets, parade ground, and cavernous munitions bunkers and is suitable for repulsing any hostile parties who might wish to attack the Old Port with nineteenth-century naval assets. All Lannon and Cushing would need to hold back the steamers of the old Spanish Navy is a shipment of ten- and fifteen-inch Rodman guns, sixty trained artillerymen, and a large supply of ammunition.

Fortunately, Casco Bay isn’t under any immediate threat, so the siblings concentrate on the more mundane responsibilities of fort ownership. They mow acres and acres of lawns — every few days in springtime, the grass grows so quickly — and keep the walkways and outbuildings maintained for the tour parties they bring over from the city four times a week in season. Over near the old Immigration and Quarantine station there are lobster bakes to stage and weddings to cater, but at least they don’t have to clean up oil spills anymore. After their mother, the late Hilda Cushing Dudley, purchased the fort in 1954 to save it from being torn down, the family would regularly have to clean up their beach whenever oil spilled from tankers at the South Portland terminals. (“When we get a spill we get down on our hands and knees and clean it up,” she told a reporter in 1977. “People aren’t going to come out here if there’s oil all over the beach.”)

Asked what the hardest thing about fort ownership is nowadays, Hal doesn’t have to think. “Paying the taxes,” he says emphatically, referring to the $35,000 annual bill from Portland, of which House Island and Fort Scammell are a part. “We don’t have any services, but we’re charged by the square foot so we’re in the top ten tax residents in the city.”

But previous custodians of Fort Scammell and the network of other fortifications protecting Maine’s largest port had even worse things than taxes to contend with. They were slaughtered in Indian attacks in the seventeenth century, bombarded by British cannons in the eighteenth, suffered for lack of supplies, heat, and entertainment in the nineteenth, and shot at by suspected spies in the early twentieth. On the eve of World War II, thousands of soldiers and sailors manned anti-aircraft guns, heavy artillery, watch towers, and the controls for remotely-detonated mines, alert for a Nazi surprise attack that fortunately never came.

Click on the link for the rest of this story by Colin Woodard in Down East magazine.

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